After art directing films such as There Will Be Blood with production designer extraordinaire Jack Fisk, Ruth De Jong blazed her own path, going on to design hugely successful projects for writer/director auteurs Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone), David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By The Sea), and Jordan Peele (Us and Nope). Most recently she brought her force of optimism and unique vision to a collaboration with Christopher Nolan on his historic epic Oppenheimer.
AS: How involved was Christopher Nolan with the visual design of Oppenheimer? RDJ: Chris was incredibly involved. In fact, we spent seven to eight weeks together prepping, just the two of us. As soon as I started, we spent every single day together in a close collaboration, figuring out the direction of the design. At this point the script was written and he was very happy with it. So it was all about exploring the design and look of this film. I brought on a researcher the very first thing, Lauren Sandoval, who was incredible. She and I covered our offices floor to ceiling with archival photographs on every single topic, for every single scene, through all the periods. The Truman office, the Trinity site, the actual Los Alamos location and on and on and on. All the real characters, their faces, as much imagery as we could find, some never before seen. We studied these and almost by osmosis soaked it all in over the weeks. It was also great because those coming through to read the script could walk the halls and take it all in, it was immersive.
Pixar production designer Ralph Eggleston explains that while the production process is different with animated films, the design thinking is the same. An Academy Award winner, Eggleston has contributed his artistic vision to features at Pixar since Toy Story. Over the years he’s production designed a series of beloved, animated blockbusters including Incredibles 2, Inside Out, Finding Nemo, and more, all adding up to a worldwide gross close to 4 billion.
Very sorry to learn that Ralph Eggleston passed away of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He was one of the nicest guys in the world and a truly inspired genius, as you’ll read below…
AS: Normally live action production designers go from one project to the next, not knowing what, when, or where the next one will be. What is it like being a production designer with the security of going into an office every day? RE: It’s akin to to the old studio system in a way. I start before we have much of a script at all, and I’m there all the way through helping out with marketing and merchandise. The longest show I’ve ever worked on was five and a half years and that was Inside Out, the shortest was Incredibles 2, which was two and a half years.
Hannah Beachler made a name for herself designing critically-praised independent films like Creed, Fruitvale Station, and the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Now she oversees $30 million art department budgets for films like the blockbuster Black Panther, for which she won an Academy Award. She’s staying busy during the coronavirus epidemic and will soon be prepping Black Panther 2…
AS: Is all film work shut down for you because of coronavirus? HB: I was on location in Detroit with Steven Soderbergh and the production said, We’re on hiatus. We’re going to be back in a couple weeks. So we just walked away. We didn’t wrap anything. We left our offices as-is, warehouses, everything. But now we’re finally getting the call to wrap out. And to me that kind of indicates that we’re not coming back anytime soon.
AS: Do you have any thoughts about how the industry might start back up? HB: A few weeks ago Variety called me about a Tweet I’d sent out about some of the film companies and how they’re handling the pandemic. My basic sentiment is the bigger the film’s budget, the easier it will be to handle. The larger the studio, the easier it is. I see the bigger movies coming back. And movies are still currently in development. That hasn’t stopped because those people work remotely- all the illustrators, concept artists, animators, set designers.
Rick Carter is a legend in the field of production design. With Avatar and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, he designed two films that have each made over two billion in the box office. He’s spent a career teaming up with three of the greatest filmmaking visionaries who ever lived- Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Robert Zemekis, to create such classic films as Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future II and III. To date he’s won two Academy awards, one for Avatar and one for Lincoln. Most recently he designed Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I connected to Rick in the middle of the worldwide Corona virus pandemic, with our industry on hold…
AS: Is all production and prep shut down for you because of the Covid 19 virus? RC: It really is. There’s some prep going on but for the most part it’s shut down. People are trying to figure out when they can actually start up a production and how to do it because getting people together is not an easy task. Keeping people safe is the first and foremost thing. Secondarily, what kind of art can we create in this environment? It will have a profound impact on what movies are and how they’re made.
The job of production design is not going to be dependent on what we’ve had in this last epoch. Production design is not a static thing. Just the advent of computer imagery into the process caused a development that we’ve all had to adjust to, those of us who’ve been around for a while. And here comes another change and this one’s going to be very, very trying but I think it will lead to great solutions. Designers will have to really help designthe production, not just what it looks like.
Mark Friedberg’s beautifully gritty design was the dark soul of Todd Phillip’s Joker movie. The film is an unconventional, uncompromising blockbuster that has surpassed the one billion dollar mark in the box office. Not all of Mark Friedberg’s movies have made over one billion dollars, however. His heart’s in the indie world and he’s designed a long list of indie classics from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited to the more recent Selma and If Beale Street Could Talk. And for Darren Aronofsky he created the giant biblical ark seen in the big budget epic Noah. Below is some deep insight into this design genius’ process.
AS: How do you go about creating the specific universe of a movie like Joker? MF: The way I design is I want to understand the world before I make it. I’m not making a world and then trying to understand it. I’m not making sets and hoping they go together. I like to work from concept. There was this sense of the city being an oppressive force bearing down on Arthur [Fleck, the Joker] that was in the script. But there were also strong references to Taxi Driver and that era of filmmaking and to living in New York City at that time. It took a while with Todd [Phillips, director] and I driving around to figure out what our Gotham was, what was Arthur’s Gotham really. Everything in the visual world of the story both advances the plot but also cues us emotionally, in the way the score helps us understand what to feel and the costumes help us better understand the character.